Sunday, August 29, 2010

"I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back:" Oliver Wendell Holmes' Hunt for the Captain, Part 3

Elizabeth Wright to James Wright, August 13, 1862.
Letter found on battlefield by O.W. Holmes, Sr.
Harvard Law School Library Digital Suite: 
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. John G. Palfrey (1875-1945)
 collection of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. 
Papers, 1715-1938: Civil War telegrams, 1862, seq. 42; direct URL

On Sunday, September 21st, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and two companions[1] set out for the battlefield with his driver, James Grayden, at the reins. "We followed the road through the village for a space, then turned off to the right, and wandered somewhat vaguely, for want of precise directions, over the hills. Inquiring as we went, we forded a wide creek in which soldiers were washing their clothes, the name of which we did no then know, but which must have been the Antietam. At one point we met a party, women among them, bringing off various trophies they had picked up on the battle-field. Still wandering along, we were at last pointed to a hill in the distance, a part of the summit of which was covered with Indian-corn. There, we were told, some of the fiercest fighting of the day had been done. The fences were taken down so as to make a passage across the fields, and the tracks worn within the last few days looked like old roads. A board was nailed to the tree, bearing the name, as well as I could make it out, of Gardiner, of a New-Hampshire regiment.[3]

On coming near the brow of the hill, we met a party carrying picks and spades. "How many?" "Only one." The dead were nearly all buried, then, in this region of the field of strife. We stopped the wagon, and, getting out, began to look around us. Hard by was a large pile of muskets, scores, if not hundreds, which had been picked up, and were guarded for the Government. A long ridge of fresh gravel rose before us. A board stuck up in front of it bore this inscription, the first part of which was, I believe, not correct: "The Rebel General Anderson and 80 Rebels are buried in this hole."[4] Other similar ridges were marked with the number of dead lying under them. The whole ground was strewed with fragments of clothing, haversacks, canteens, cap-boxes, bullets, cartridge-boxes, cartridges, scraps of paper, portions of bread and meat."

As he walked the field, Holmes picked up "a bullet or two, a button, a brass plate from a soldier's belt." He also picked up a letter "directed to Richmond, Virginia, its seal unbroken. 'N.C. Cleveland County. E. Wright to J. Wright.' On the other side, 'A few lines from W.L. Vaughn,' who has just been writing for the wife to her husband, and continues on his own account. The postscript [written by Vaughn], 'tell John that nancy's folks are all well and has a very good Little Crop of corn a growing.' [Holmes wrote] I wonder, if, by one of those strange chances of which I have seen so many, this number or leaf of the 'Atlantic' [Atlantic Monthly] will not sooner or later find its way to Cleveland County, North Carolina, and E. Wright, widow of James Wright, and Nancy's folks, get from these sentences the last glimpse of husband and friend as he threw up his arms and fell in the bloody cornfield of Antietam?[5] I will keep this stained letter for them until peace comes back, if it comes in my time, and my pleasant North Carolina Rebel of the Middletown Hospital will, perhaps, look these poor people up, and tell them where to send for it."[6]

That afternoon, September 21, Holmes turned away from the Antietam. After spending the night at Middletown, he continued his search for the Captain--a search with more false leads and dead ends. Four days earlier, on the morning of September 17, his son, whom he called Wendell, began a journey under very different circumstances--one that took him from a near-death experience in the West Woods through the Maryland countryside to a reunion with his father.

To be continued...


[1] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Soundings from the Atlantic (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), p. 67 [hereafter Soundings]. In Soundings, Holmes writes: "On the battle-field I parted with my two companions, [the 'Chaplain and the Philanthropist'] they were going to the front, the one to find his regiment, the other to look for those who needed his assistance." Holmes mentioned in Soundings that they exchanged cards on parting. In the Harvard University Library, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Civil War Letters and Telegrams, Folder 18-12, Sequence 217-18 is the calling card of William Henry Rice, Chaplain of the 129th Pennsylvania Vols. The 129th was part of Humphrey's Division, V Corps. The "Philanthropist" was probably Frank B. Fay who in his Reminiscences describes a journey to the battlefield (see previous post, August 13, footnote 9).

[2] Holmes identified his driver, James Grayden, as "born in England, Lancashire; in this country since he was four years old." Soundings, 67-68.

[3] Soundings, 58, 62-64. The identify of "Gardiner" is a mystery. The board that Holmes describes was probably near the Sunken Road since he later describes area in some detail. If so, then the only New Hampshire regiment engaged in that part of the field was the Fifth New Hampshire (there were a total of four NH outfits at Antietam: the Sixth and the Ninth, part of the IX Corps, were engaged at the Burnside Bridge, and the 2nd Company NH Light Artillery, part of the I Corps, Doubleday's Division, were operating near the North Woods and reported three wounded only). There was an Isaac L. Gardiner, serving in the Fifth New Hampshire, Richardson's Division, but he survived the battle and was mustered out later as a Second Lieutenant. There is a possibility that this was Corporal O. Winslow Garland of Company D, 5th N.H., who was killed in action. Thanks to James Feindel and James Blake, Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers for their research and correspondence related to this individual's identity. For more on the 5th New Hampshire, click here. Any further information on this individual will be added if it comes in.

[4] Holmes is correct: Brigadier General George Burgwyn Anderson was seriously wounded but not killed in the Sunken Road action. He later died of his wounds on October 16, 1862 in Raleigh, N.C. Brian Downey's Antietam on the Web under Anderson's biography at

[5] This may have been James Wright of the 14th North Carolina. A James D. Wright from Cleveland County NC enlisted as a private on Feb. 6, 1862 in Company D, North Carolina 14th Infantry Regiment (Cleveland Blues) on June 2, 1862. The 14th NC fought in the Sunken Road. The 1860 Census of Cleveland County North Carolina, records that James Wright (46, born Virginia about 1814) resided with his wife Elizabeth Wright (43, born Virginia about 1817). He gave his occupation as a wagon maker. They listed in their household a Nancy Wright (19 years, born Va.) and seven other children. James Wright survived the war and is listed in the 1870 Census of Township 9, Cleveland, North Carolina along with his wife Elizabeth, his daughter Nancy and seven children. James' brother, John, also served in the same regiment and was killed at Antietam.

As for W.L. Vaughn, the 1860 Census for Cleveland, Co. shows a William Vaughn, 35 years old, living in Cleveland County.  Later a William L. Vaughn of Cleveland County enlists in the 34th North Carolina in April 1864, survives the war, and is mustered out on June 17, 1865. 1860, 1870 U.S. Census, N.C., Cleveland County; Historical Data Systems, comp.. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA; Harvard Law School Library Digital Suite at

[6] Soundings, 66-67. Holmes noted in his memoir an encounter in Middletown with a lieutenant from North Carolina: "He was of good family, son of a judge in one of the higher courts of his State, educated, pleasant, gentle, intelligent." Soundings, 57.

Images: Elizabeth Wright to James Wright and (verso) W.L. Vaughn to James Wright: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Civil War Letters and telegrams, Folder 18-12, Sequence 235-238. Retrieved at:

Friday, August 13, 2010

"I started as some faint resemblance…recalled the presence I was in search of:" Oliver Wendell Holmes' Hunt for the Captain, Part 2

Col. Edward A. Wild
By the evening of September 20, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and his traveling companions reached Middletown. [1]. There the “gentle lady who had graced our homely conveyance with her company here left us. She found her husband, the gallant Colonel, in very comfortable quarters, well cared for, very weak from the effects of the fearful operation he had been compelled to undergo.” [2].

Late the next day he searched the town’s churches that had been turned into hospitals. [3] “Boards were laid over the tops of the pews, on these some straw was spread, and this the wounded lay, with little or no covering other than such scanty clothes as they had on.”[4] As the elder Holmes searched, he thought “was it possible that my Captain could be lying on the straw in one of these places? …Many times as I went from hospital to hospital in my wanderings, I started as some faint resemblance…recalled the presence I was in search of.” [5]

On Sunday morning, the 21st, Dr. Holmes set out from Middletown for Keedysville. Along the way, he searched all the Boonsboro hospitals with no result.

At Keedysville, Holmes met “the tall form and benevolent countenance, set off by long flowing hair, belonging to the excellent Mayor Frank B. Fay of Chelsea, who had come promptly to succor the wounded of that great battle. It was wonderful to see how his single personality pervaded this torpid little village; he seemed to be the centre of all its activities.”[6]

Frank B. Fay
Francis Ball Fay (1821-1904), mayor of Chelsea, Massachusetts, traveled with the Army of the Potomac looking after the boys in Chelsea's regiment, the 35th Massachusetts. The Thirty-Fifth, less than a month after leaving home, received their baptism of fire at Fox’s Gap on South Mountain. [7]. On reading about the South Mountain battles in the papers the morning of the 15th, Fay hurried by train to Frederick from Washington. There he met Dr. Lewis H. Steiner, Inspector of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, who asked him to wait until the next day to bring a wagonload of supplies to the front. When the wagons did not arrive, Fay set out for Middletown by foot “hearing the guns of the battle of Antietam not far away.” At Middletown, Fay “began to work at once among the wounded at that place.” That evening the wagons came up and he went on with them reaching Keedysville at dawn on the 18th. There he set up his headquarters in the home of a “Mr. Keedy” whom he found “generous and hospitable.” [8]. It was there that he met Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Years later, Fay recollected their meeting: “We were strangers, but I ventured to ask if I could help him, and he replied, ‘Yes, I am anxious to go through the hospitals, if you can point them out to me.’ I replied that every house, barn, mill, and church within a radius of miles was a hospital, but that we could undoubtedly find his son. I then remembered that I had seen some of the wounded men of the 20th regiment in a house near by, and we went in search for him.” [9]

As the men visited the Keedysville locations were the wounded and dying lay, Fay answered all of the Doctor’s questions “clearly and decisively, as one who knew everything going on in the place. But the one question I had come to ask, Where is Captain Holmes ? he could not answer.“ [10]

Finally they ran into a medical officer “who answered my question by pointing to a house, saying he is staying there.” Holmes described the house as “a cottage of squared logs, filled in with plaster, and whitewashed. A little yard before it, with a gate swinging.” He described what happened next: “the door of the cottage ajar,--no one visible yet. I push open the door and enter. An old woman, Margaret Kitzmuller …is the first person I see.

‘Captain Holmes here?’[10a]

‘Oh, no, sir; he left yesterday morning for Hagerstown in a milk-cart.’” Furthermore, he “was in good condition—good spirits—wound doing well.” [11]

51 N. Main Street, Keedysville, MD
The Keedysville home of Margaret Kitzmiller is located at 51 North Main Street. Margaret and her two daughters, Malinda, 21, and Margaret, 17, tended to Holmes there until he was strong enough to continue northward in the hopes of catching a train in Hagerstown and then on to Philadelphia where he could recuperate at the home of his friend Norwood Penrose Hallowell. [12]

Satisfied that his son was headed to friends and sure he could not catch up with him given his 36 hour head start, Holmes decided to return north by way of Frederick and Baltimore and reunite with his son in Philadelphia. But before doing so, he thought it “impossible to go without seeing” the “great battlefield” only a few miles away. [13]

To be continued…


1. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Soundings from the Atlantic (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), p. 51 (hereafter, Soundings).

2. This was Col. Edward Augustus Wild, 35th Massachusetts, who was wounded at Fox Gap on South Mountain. His left arm was severely injured by the explosion of a shell and was amputated at the shoulder after three surgical operations. Two months earlier, he had nearly lost his right hand at Fair Oaks. A graduate of Harvard University, Wild was a homeopathic physician before the war and resided in Brookline, Massachusetts with his wife Frances Ellen (Sullivan). Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. to Amelia Lee Jackson Holmes, September 22, in the Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Civil War Letters and Telegrams, Harvard Law School Library at; Brian Downey's Antietam on the Web bio for Wild; Thomas Clemens, The Maryland Campaign, Vol. 1, Fox’s Gap map, 3 p.m. until dark; Bradford Kingman, Memoir of Gen. Edward Augustus Wild (Boston: Privately Printed, 1895), pp. 4, 6, 7. For more on Wild, see Frances H. Casstevens, Edward A. Wild and the African Brigade in the Civil War (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishers, 2003).

3. Soundings, 55.

4. Soundings, 55.

5. Soundings, 56

6. Soundings, 59-60; In his letter to his wife Amelia, Holmes describes Fay as “the benevolent general of the place.” Oliver Wendell Holme to Amelia Holmes, September 22, 1862, Harvard Law Library online at

7. The 35th Massachusetts recruited at Boston and Chelsea and Company H originated as The Chelsea Light Infantry. The 35th, part of the IX Corps, participated in the action around Burnsides Bridge. 35th Massachusetts, Civil War Archive at; Clemens, The Maryland Campaign, Vol. 1, p. 343; Brian Downey's Antietam on the Web at

8. There were a number of Keedy families residing in Keedysville in the 1860s. Christian Keedy appears to have held the most property, and the most likely location for Fay's operations, but there were others: Samuel Keedy, a retired farmer, John Keedy, a physician, Alfred Keedy, a carpenter, and Jacob Keedy, a farmer. U.S. Census, Maryland, 1860 and 1870; U.S. Tax Records, 1862 and 1863; My Families at Antietam: A Genealogy Website at

9. William Howell Reed (editor), War Papers of Frank B. Fay With Reminiscences of Service in the Camps and Hospitals of the Army of the Potomac, 1861-1865, (Privately Printed, n.p., 1911), p. 41 ff.

10. Soundings, 60.

10a. Holmes described Margaret Kitzmiller [not Kitzmuller] as a “beady-eyed, cheery-looking ancient woman [who] answers questions with a rising inflection, and gives a good account of the Captain, who got into the vehicle [the milk cart] without assistance, and was in excellent spirits.” Soundings 61.

11. Soundings; Holmes to Amelia, September 22, 1862, Harvard Law Library and posted at

12. Norwood "Pen" Hallowell served with Holmes in the 20th Massachusetts. He was wounded in the West Woods. U.S. Census, Maryland, 1860; Kathleen Ernst, Too Afraid To Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1999), p. 174; Keedysville: An Illustrated Atlas of Washington County, Maryland (drawn by Margaret Burtner Moats from surveys by Lake, Grifing and Stevenson, Philadelphia, Pa. 1877)—special thanks to Thomas Clemens for providing this map; William LeDuc to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1910 and cited in Mark De Wolfe Howe, editor, Touched With Fire: Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), pp. 65-66.


First. Edward Augustus Wild, ca. 1863.
Frank B. Fay, Jr. This photo is not contemporary to 1862.
Third. No. 51 North Main Street, August 2010. Perhaps somewhere within the remodeled current house are remnants of the original home of Margaret Kitzmiller.